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COLUMN ONE

The Battle of Nouveau Orleans

When the Chicken King opened a glitzy eatery in a genteel corner of the Big Easy, the Vampire Queen saw red. The public feud that followed highlighted the city's delicate mix of history and commerce.

December 25, 1997|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — Al is razzle and dazzle, the consummate showman, a speed demon, a sport. He likes gold and chrome and mirrors, ostrich-skin cowboy boots, fast cars.

Anne is dark and deep, isolated, brooding, obsessed with questions of the soul. She collects dolls and religious statuary and historic properties, restoring them into living backdrops for her novels.

Al lives in the suburbs, in a lakefront mansion with a home gym. Anne lives in the Garden District, in a 140-year-old, white-columned, Greek Revival estate. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade. She has a master's in creative writing. He races powerboats. She never learned to drive.

During the holidays, Al strings up more than a million bulbs, spelling out "Merry Christmas Y'All" in high-voltage script. For Halloween, Anne hosts a "Coven Ball" for a couple thousand fans decked out in velvet capes and body art.

At least they both like riding in Mardi Gras parades--he showers the crowds with plastic pearls, she hurls rubber rats.

Al and Anne. Copeland versus Rice. He is the Chicken King, founder of the Popeyes fast-food empire. She is the Vampire Queen, creator of the Lestat franchise. Both are New Orleans icons, cultural ambassadors with distinct interpretations of their native land. This year, they went to court. What other city could hatch a pair of hometown heroes so fabulously indigenous and so impossibly different?

"It's like the clash of the Titans," said Bud Whalen, who offered his kitschy watering hole, the Rivershack Tavern, as a neutral mediation site. "Gothic versus Gauche."

For most of their 50-plus years, these self-made multimillionaires might as well have lived on separate planets, having never met or spoken. Rice had at least eaten Copeland's food. But Copeland scarcely knew of Rice, nothing about her best-selling fiction or odd forays into the public realm, like showing up for a book-signing in a horse-drawn coffin.

All that changed in February, when Copeland opened another in his new line of trendy eateries, Straya, in an abandoned Mercedes-Benz dealership. The place is vintage Al, a "California Creole Grande Cafe," which translates into dishes like Tuna Sausage and Fried Oyster Rockefeller Pizza. His third wife--his former receptionist--did the decorating, dolling up the old brick facade in a peach coat, along with neon lights, gold panthers and a galaxy of silver stars.

If it was on Bourbon Street, Straya hardly would have raised an eyebrow. But Copeland christened his latest flagship on St. Charles Avenue, the oak-lined gateway to the genteel Garden District, not far from Rice's 19th century home. To her way of thinking, Straya was nothing short of an alien invasion, an attack on the Old World sensibilities that make New Orleans the most non-American of U.S. cities.

Yet she was not content merely to think it. As she has done before, most famously after Tom Cruise was cast in the film version of her "Interview with the Vampire," Rice took out a full-page ad to voice her disgust.

"This monstrosity in no way represents the ambience, the romance, or the charm that we seek to offer you and strive to maintain in our city," she wrote in a "special message" published by the Times-Picayune.

She called Straya "absolutely hideous," "ludicrous," "egregious," "an eyesore," an "abomination" and an "insult," with less dignity than "the humblest flop house." She expressed her "personal humiliation, regret and sorrow, as private citizen Anne Rice." And she urged others to do the same.

"Maybe then Mr. Copeland will realize the gravity of his mistake, and do something to show respect for his fellow citizens and his city," she concluded.

Copeland was stunned. "Do I know this lady?" he asked, after learning of the ad. "If it was a guy, you'd go punch him in the mouth."

Dueling Newspaper Ads

Sensing a publicity coup, Copeland fired back with a two-page ad of his own, scolding Rice for her lack of manners and defending Straya as a "fine merger of contemporary and classic design." He pointed out that this particular stretch of St. Charles was not a showcase of antebellum homes, but a pocket of blight--a landscape that "might make a fitting backdrop for one of your vampire novels," but which is not in the interests of a city struggling to battle high unemployment and urban decay.

"P.S. See you in court," he added. "In the meantime, I'm putting a little extra garlic in the food at Straya."

In a city that celebrates politics as theater and worships food as art, the Al and Anne show was pure lagniappe--that little unexpected something extra, like a handful of free crawfish to go with a cold Dixie during happy hour.

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